That Book Is HUGE! (An Introduction to Les Misérables)

Undoubtedly they seemed very depraved, very corrupt, very vile, very hateful, even, but those are rare who fall without becoming degraded; there is a point, moreover, at which the unfortunate and the infamous are associated and confounded in a single word, a fatal word, Les Misérables; whose fault is it?

So far, this month’s book Les Misérables is way different from what I expected. And that is not a bad thing. I have to admit, that I was in no way familiar with the story line. When the Broadway musical was at the height of its popularity, I never saw it or heard more than a song or two from the soundtrack. I thought it was about the beginning of the French Revolution (wrong!), and the story is turning out to have way more suspenseful moments than I would have thought. I certainly didn’t expect a novel that would address so many themes. As Victor Hugo tells the story, his involvement in politics shows as he explores poverty, patriotism, justice, oppression, social justice, and redemption, among others.

One thing I did know, though, was that this book is HUGE! I received my copy for Christmas, and it looked like brick sitting under the tree with my copy of The Hiding Place that I also received as a gift.

Les Mis Comparison

My abridged version weighs in at a hefty 829 pages (and that is with pretty small print). I’m not usually intimidated by giant books (I count Gone with the Wind and it’s 1,037 are among some of my all-time favorites), but for some reason, this one seemed scary. Perhaps it’s the fact that it’s abridged, or maybe it’s the French title. However once I’ve gotten deeper into the story, I would say it has been worth confronting my fear and diving into this novel. Perhaps you’ve had some similar fears of large novels, or maybe you tend to get bogged down when reading books of this kind of size. If so, I thought I would include some suggestions for reading big books, in particular, this one.

  1. There is no shame in reading the abridged version. Especially in the case of Les Misérables (see the page count I mentioned above). Hugo is a very descriptive writer, and he has a tendency to wax poetic for multiple chapters about topics like French society and the Battle of Waterloo. While brilliantly described, I am sure, these types of details aren’t really necessary to the backstory or moving along the plot. Judging from his critical essay included at the beginning of my edition of the book, the guy that did the abridgement was really smart, and I trust his judgment that what he decided to cut out (or summarize in an italicized paragraph) was probably OK to cut.
  2. Skim if necessary. As I mentioned before, Hugo is a very poetic author, so he often has very lengthy descriptions of scenes and characters. This helps create a very vivid visual picture, but in most cases these descriptions aren’t integral to the plot. If you get bogged down in the descriptive sections, go ahead and skim them so you have a basic idea of what is going on without getting stuck. If you miss a key detail, you can always go back.
  3. If it helps, take notes. There are a lot of characters in the novel, and some go by different names at different points in the story, so you might find it helpful to keep a list of who is who. Or you might want to make notes of key plot points.
  4. Make use of SparkNotes (or something similar). Les Misérables follows several main characters whose stories all overlap. You might find it helpful to look at SparkNotes or another outside resource for the plot summary after you read a chapter to make sure you didn’t miss anything important. If it is easier for you to read a book when you to know where the story is going, read ahead in the plot summary, or you might find it helpful to use the information to do your own “abridging” to skip some of the more flowery sections and jump ahead to where the action picks up.
  5. Give it a fair chance. Personally, I find that with a lot of books, it takes a few chapters or more to really get a feel for the author’s writing style, some of the characters and the overall “feel” of the book. Some of books take quite a bit of time (and pages) to set the stage and the scene before they really pick up. Les Misérables definitely falls into this category. Hugo takes great care to introduce you to the setting and his characters, which may seem tedious at times. Hopefully if you find it tedious, you can find some appreciation for his gift of description. This gift carries into the more action-oriented sequences of the novel, which makes him a master at building tension and suspense.

How about you? Have you found the book to be what you expected? Do you have any tips for reading this, and other large novels? I hope you give Les Misérables a fair chance and come and join us on June 14 at 7 p.m. for our discussion and Summer Picnic at Geist Park.

Happy Reading!

50 years for her, 4 years for us

I love that we are outgrowing our book club table!

Sometimes I wonder what others think? They sit at a neighboring table and see us, crowding around our table where we sometimes burst out laughing, sometimes have very serious discussion, and sometimes all sit there in silence writing. Like last Thursday, when Janet has us all take a pop quiz on the book! Never fear. This was the first time we’ve done a quiz, it was multiple choice, and you got to work with your neighbor.

This year is the 50th anniversary of the 1963 Newbery winner:  
A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L’Engle 

Being a Young Reader book this month we invited daughters who had read the book to join us! I wasn’t much of a reader in my early days so this was my first time reading about tesseracting and space travel with Meg. It seems those who read it as a child still loved it as an adult! I’m intrigued enough I’ll probably track down copies of the rest of L’Engle’s adventures with Meg and her crew. Did you read this as a child? Have you thought of re-reading any of your childhood favorites?

Another anniversary needs to be mentioned.

This month marked our 4th year as a book club! May of 2008 seems like ages ago and just the other day at the same time. Looking back at our past books I think I can remember every single meeting! Every single lady who has joined us, whether it was once or almost every time, is a blessing. I’m so lucky to count you all as friends!

I hope you will all stick around for many, many more books and months and years! As we being our 5th year we have a 5 year anniversary book club TRIP in the works! More details will be coming. Just know it’s going to be fun and you will want to mark that weekend as “booked” on your calendar!

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June 14, 2012
Les Misérables by Victor Hugo
Summer Picnic at Geist Park @ 7:00pm

 “They mistake the stars of heaven with a ducks footprint in the mud.” -Les Mis

This book is long but not one to skip! I’m in the last 1/4th of the book and I know you’re going to love it!! It’s crammed full of such good stuff! Join us for great discussion and a pitch-in summer picnic at the park where we got our start as a book club.

A Wrinkle In Time: Discussion Questions

I had a hard time finding a good list of discussion questions online. I had to go 3 pages deep in google, and still nothing! It was such hard work I fell asleep. True Story.

So, change of plans- we’ll see you tomorrow for the discussion, and in honor of this being our young reader- there will be a quiz. (That’s why I can’t tell you what the questions are, duh.)  It’s for your sake, really, because anything I come up with while I’m awake will be way more fun than what I’d come up with right now. 🙂

I hope to see you tomorrow for the party at the “Panaradise” (Paradise Bakery) at Hamilton Town Center at 7pm.

Never Underestimate a Young Reader: About Madeleine L’Engle

“You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.”
– Madeleine L’Engle

Madeleine L’Engle was born in 1918 in New York City. She wrote her first story when she was 5 and began keeping a journal when she was 8. Despite her prowess in writing, she was not a good student. Her family traveled a lot and even lived by the French Alps for a while, and she received most of her education in various boarding schools. Madeleine went on to study English at Smith College from 1937-1941, where she graduated with honors.

After graduation, Madeleine worked in the theater in New York and wrote on the side. During her time in theater, she met actor Hugh Franklin, whom she married in 1946. They moved to the country for a while and ran a general store before returning to New York. L’Engle worked at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine where she was the librarian and writer-in-residence and had an office for more than 30 years.

From the 1960s through the 1980s L’Engle wrote dozens of books for both children and adults. Her most famous novel is our book for this month, A Wrinkle in Time, which was published in 1962 and turns 50 years old this year. The book was very close to never being published, as it received numerous rejections. Publishers complained that that the plot seemed too complicated for children. They didn’t like the mixture of science fiction and philosophy, and science fiction didn’t typically feature female protagonists. It was finally bought by the publishing company Farrar, Straus and Giroux. When an outside reader didn’t like the book, the editor admitted that it was “distinctly odd” but defended it by saying, “I for one believe that the capabilities of young readers are greatly underestimated.” (You can find out more about the story behind the publishing of A Wrinkle in Time in this NPR story.)

L’Engle’s editor turned out to be right. A Wrinkle in Time was an immediate success,  became a bestseller, won the prestigious Newbery Medal in 1963, and has continued to be beloved by generations of readers. L’Engle’s insistence on writing a book that doesn’t talk down to kids or underestimate them is part of the reason why the novel still speaks to kids today.

If you want a little more of a glimpse into what Madeleine L’Engle was like, look no further than A Wrinkle in Time’s Meg Murry, since L’Engle wrote a lot of herself into the character.  And you can also find out more on the official Madeleine L’Engle website, which also has links to a number of articles celebrating the 50th anniversary of A Wrinkle in Time.

We hope you’ve been enjoying A Wrinkle in Time and that you can come discuss it with us this Thursday, May 10 at 7 p.m. at Paradise Bakery and Café at Hamilton Town Center. Remember that since this  month is our young reader book, any girls who have read the book are welcome to join us, too!

Happy Reading!

Up next: A Wrinkle In Time

Join us May 8th for a discussion of A Wrinkle In Time at 7:00pm.  This year we’re adding a new, fun twist to our Young Reader month discussion! If you have a daughter that has read the book they are welcome to join us and get a taste of what their Mama does every month on book club Thursday!

We’ll be back at Paradise Bakery and Cafe at HTC…. which we might technically call: Panaraise, according to the other Sarah. The sign still says Paradise, but they sell Panara food. You have been warned, in case you were hoping for a Paradise cookie. 😉

*Heads up for next month. We don’t want Les Mis to sneak up on you, go ahead and start it now. I’m almost half way and really enjoying it! I’m learning long books are not intimidating.

The Good Earth recap: It was a tea party!


Previously, our tea parties have been at Tea’s Me. A place we absolutely love, by the way. We’re just trying to meet more in homes, and they’re not open in the evenings. (Instead we bought their tea and brought it to the party!)

We like to bring out grandma’s china anytime we can.

We had some requests for recipes, so here they are…
Cucumber Feta Rolls
Caprese on a Stick
Strawberry Buttermilk Cake
Coconut Shortbread Cookies

Spinach Dip recipe at the end of the post .

 

Babies are always welcome!

A really good story!! I’m not talking about the book. Well, we did like the book. But the one we’re listening to here was really entertaining!

Hi friends!

Spinach Dip

1 package (10 oz) frozen chopped spinach, thawed and drained [I used a package marked 16 oz, and by the time it was drained, it had about 10 oz of spinach]
1 container (16 oz) sour cream
1 cup mayonnaise
1 package (dry) KNORR Vegetable Soup Dip and Recipe Mix
1 can (8 oz) water chestnuts drained and chopped (optional) [I didn’t include these this time]
3 green onions, chopped [I substituted fresh chives]

In medium bowl stir spinach, sour cream, mayonnaise, soup mix, water chestnuts, and green onions until well mixed.
Cover, chill 2 hours to blend flavors.
Stir well. If desired, spoon into round bread bowl. Serve wilth cut up vegetables or chips.

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Next moth: A Wrinkle In Time by Madeline L’Engle
@Paradise Bakery, Hamilton Town Center 7pm May 10th

June: Les Miserables by Victor Hugo
Summer Picnic! Start reading today- it’s a long one!

To Get You Ready for a Tea Party Conversation…

20090920 Tongli Imgp5761
By Jakub Hałun (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

I have to admit, that I wasn’t sure what to think when I started reading The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck. I certainly wasn’t very familiar with the ins and outs of Chinese culture, let alone the culture of Pre-Revolutionary rural China, but it didn’t take long for me to get drawn in by the story of Wang Lung, O-Lan and their family. Their trials and successes as they go through times of prosperity and famine also teach timeless lessons that we can apply to our lives today.

As you ponder that last statement here are some questions to get you ready for our discussion on Thursday. Most of these are taken or adapted from the discussion questions in the back of Sarah J.’s book (with a couple of my own thrown in).

  1. Describe Wang Lung’s expectations of his impending marriage at the beginning of the book. How does his marriage turn out in reality? How do Wang Lung’s expectations of marriage compare to the expectations of marriage in Western cultures?
  2. Why does Wang Lung feel compelled to purchase the rice field from the House of Hwang? Why does he at first regret it?
  3. Wang Lung considers the birth of his daughter to be a bad omen. How does he come to regard this girl, who grows up to be a “fool”?
  4. As the family works and begs in the city, what do they think of the foreigners they encounter? What purpose does the author serve in including these descriptions?
  5. When Wang Lung becomes swept up in the mob and enters the rich man’s house, is the gold he receives there a curse or a blessing? Do you feel any pity for the rich man?
  6. After O-Lan steals the jewels, do they function as a bad omen or good luck? Why does she want to keep the two pearls? Why is Wang Lung so astonished by this?
  7. As O-Lan dies, she bemoans her lack of beauty and says she is too ugly to be loved. Wang Lung feels guilty, but still cannot love her as he did Lotus. Neither woman can control destiny. Lotus was an orphan who had been sold into prostitution because she was beautiful, and O-Lan had been sold as a kitchen slave because she was plain. For whom do you feel sympathy? Why?
  8. Describe Wang Lung’s relationship with the House of Hwang throughout the novel. In the end, does he end up better off than they did?
  9. How does Wang Lung’s religious faith change throughout the novel? Do you see any parallels with the way people experience the Christian faith?
  10. Pearl S. Buck wrote a first-person novel from the point of view of a Chinese man, which was controversial because she was of a different culture. How might this book have been different if it had been written by a Chinese person?
If you haven’t gotten to the end of The Good Earth, you still have a few days to finish this intriguing novel. We’ll see you this Thursday, April 12 at 7 p.m. At Sarah R.’s house for our discussion and our annual tea partySend us a message or leave a comment if you need directions, and we’ll make sure to let you know how to get there.

See you Thursday! Until then, happy reading!

Pearl S. Buck

I asked Sarah to pretty please trade me posts this month. I was supposed to write the intro post, but as I haven’t yet read the book, I thought someone who loved it should write that post. Undoubtedly, when I learn more about a book/author/movie/artist, their work becomes more interesting to me.

This beautiful woman is Pearl S. Buck. I think the S stands for Sydenstricker, her maiden name. Considering that both her names are concrete nouns, I think the S was a good idea. With that observation, I immediately started to like her. She must have good judgement.

Then I read that she won both a Pulitzer and a Nobel prize. Woah. Way to go! The Pulitzer was for this month’s book The Good Earth, and the Nobel prize for her body of works, rather than one specific piece. I did a bit more reading and found that usually the Pulitzer for a novel is given for a work about American life, so I found it particularly noteworthy that she won for a story on rural Chinese life.

I am not surprised, though, that she decided to write on Chinese life. She was the daughter of missionaries to China which perfectly poised her to share their lives with us. She was more than an author, though. She has commendable bibliography, but she also founded the first international and interracial adoption agency. WHY HAVEN’T I HEARD OF HER BEFORE?

She spent the later half of her life bringing light to then unpopular issues such as, “racism, sex discrimination and the plight of the thousands of babies born to Asian women left behind and unwanted wherever American soldiers were based in Asia.” (Wikipedia)

I am so impressed by this artist (writer), humanitarian, and political activist. So I’m going to go read her Pulitzer prize-winning novel. You should too. Then, join us for our annual spring tea party Thursday, April 12 at 7pm. (Leave a comment if you need location information.)

The Good Earth Tea Party

At first glace this book might seem like just the story of a guy’s life in rural China at the turn of the century. (Not this most recent turn, the one before that.)

Bad stuff happens, good stuff happens, just like it does in real life.

However, it really is so much more than that! I’ve seen it on many book lists, but it isn’t one of those classics that everyone “should” read and no one likes.  I actually enjoyed it!!

There is a character list that you can print off in bookmark format, or here’s the list of characters for quick reference:

Men:
Wang Lung: A farmer about to start his own family 
Wang Lung’s father: Approximately 70 years old, retired from work as a farmer 
Uncle: Wang Lung’s father’s sly, younger brother
Cousin: Uncle’s son, close to Wang Lung’s age 
Old Lord Hwang: A rich landowner; keeps many slaves and concubines 
Ching: A small, quiet man; Wang Lung’s neighbor
Elder brother: Known as Nung En; “Nung” means one whose wealth is from the earth
Second son: Known as Nung Wen 
Liu: A successful grain dealer in town

Women:                     
O-lan: A kitchen slave in the House of Hwang
Lotus Flower: A “tea house” prostitute with bound feet 
Pear Blossom: A young slave girl Wang Lung buys
Uncle’s wife: Overweight, lazy and manipulative
Old Mistress Hwang: Addicted to opium
Cuckoo: Old Lord Hwang’s clever chamber slave

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I hope you enjoy the book, and we’ll see you for the tea party!

April 12th @ 7:00pm
My house. Contact me for directions:
sarahronk (at) gmail (dot) com

Our Discussion of Emma (and Some Kids’ Books Too)

Hands holding copies of Emma

Another Jane Austen book, another fun book club discussion night. This month we all read Emma and the answer to the question of “Do you like her?” was a mixed bag.

Emma Book Covers

We had a mixed bag of covers for this book, as well. We also had a couple of people who listened to the audiobook and one who read an e-book version.

Most of us thought Jane Austen had created one of her more unlikeable characters for the heroine, but we agreed that Emma Woodhouse seemed to come around in the end. As far as the book itself, the reactions mainly seemed to fall into two camps: either we really liked the story and would name it among our favorite Jane Austen books, or we just had a hard time getting into the story.

After discussing some of the ridiculous characters in the novel (Mrs. Elton and her request to ride donkeys to the party at Mr. Knightley’s house taking the cake), going through through our list of discussion questions, and choosing some conversation starters from the Table Topics cards (Most thought-provoking: If the book was a dream, what do you think it would signify?), we somehow got on the topic of some of our favorite books from when we were children. There were lots of books we had read in common, and some we sort of remembered but couldn’t recall the titles. If you can help us identify a book at about a fifth or sixth grade reading level with kids who could stop time that had a scene where they stop a dog from attacking them that might have contained some questionable language that a teacher reading it aloud would have skipped over or changed, Sarah would really like to know what it is.

Discussing Jane AustensEmma

We hope you can join us for our April 12 meeting! We’ll be reading and discussing The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck (among other subjects, I’m sure) and having a delightful tea party at Sarah’s house. We’ll keep you posted on the details.

Happy reading!